Staff at the Wisconsin Historical Society never know what will come through the door on any given day. On a day in early November, a family heirloom came in.
A collection of 100 World War I posters, passed down from a grandmother, made their way from a Madison basement to the Historical Society archive.
“The offers we get through the door, they’re things no one would expect,” said Historical Society conservator Christopher Brown. “That’s one of the great things about working here.”
The Historical Society already had a fairly substantial collection of WWI posters, about 375; it’s now well over 400, including the new batch. Of the 100 donated posters, 50 were additions not already found in the society’s collection.
Quantifying the society’s collection compared to others around the country is difficult because there were so many propaganda posters printed during WWI, said Simone Munson, collection development coordinator.
Posters were printed at the federal, state and even local levels, so there isn’t a way of knowing how many posters existed, Munson said. The federal government printed over 2,000 designs, she said, estimating there are probably 10,000 designs overall.
The Library of Congress has a large poster collection, which outnumbers the society’s, she said, but the state’s collection is comparable in terms of scope.
The Historical Society’s collection covers a swath of topics like recruitment, rationing, financial donations and agriculture. They even have posters from France and Czechoslovakia, which are less common, said processing archivist Emil Hoelter.
The donor told WHS that her grandmother was a collector of items with potential historical value. So the posters vary widely in their content.
Role of religion
What makes this particular collection unique is that it includes religious posters, which the society didn’t previously have.
“One thing we hadn’t seen before is the role of religion in some of these areas,” Munson said. “There is religious symbolism incorporated in the design of the posters. We were really excited when the donation came; it includes the sort of less documented role that the church played. These posters were put out by the Presbyterian Church for their contributions to the war effort.”
The donated posters are worn along the edges, many with pinholes or stickers used to hang them during wartime. Although they aren’t pristine, they’re still vibrant and valuable to the society.
Many of the posters previously given to the Historical Society were never hung up and they were “kept almost like art,” Munson said. Those posters had likely never seen the light of day or been hung out in public the way the new donations had been.
In some ways, it makes sense that the posters may have been coveted for a time like any other art.
“In terms of posters by the federal government, the idea was that people who were prominent illustrators at the time were the artists who worked on them,” Hoelter said. “From the start, it was by people whose work other people were familiar with. They were considered art to begin with and there was a collective mania around them.”
Although the posters spent many years in a basement, aside from a slight musty odor, there aren’t any signs of water damage or mold.
That’s a little surprising, but a relief to the conservation folks.
Now it’s up to the team in the conservation lab to ensure the posters stay in good condition.
It’s the material
Despite what the general public might think, it isn’t the age of the paper materials that dictates their condition as years go on. It’s the material they were made with, Munson said.
Paper created at the start of the 20th century is “about the worst that’s ever existed in the history of paper,” she said.
Because of the wood pulp content, the paper gets brittle much faster as it ages.
Helping the archival collection withstand the tests of time is one of Brown’s jobs as a historical society conservationist.
He is now working on conservation of the posters, which is different than restoration.
Brown is mending tears by carefully covering them with strips of Japanese paper and rice paste. Almost like a bandage, the adhered paper keeps the tear from getting worse.
In some cases, if there are large divots in papers, he may fill in the missing pieces with a cellulose fiber filling, but he won’t color it to match the paper.
Making the damage invisible or making it clear that there has been damage done is the difference between restoration or conservation, Brown said.
Protecting the posters is important to preserve them for future use.
The “striking” posters can be used by historians to “illustrate different issues,” used in books or simply to look at, Munson said.
“They are interesting to look at with the language that’s used in wartime — historians can glean a lot from that,” she added. “There is also an element to them that, if you aren’t a historian, you can take something away about the past to get a better understanding of what life was like in the United States during the war.
“They also get used a lot by school groups. It’s really easy for children to understand them.”
“One thing we hadn’t seen before is the role of religion in some of these areas. There is religious symbolism incorporated in the design of the posters. We were really excited when the donation came; it includes the sort of less documented role that the church played. These posters were put out by the Presbyterian Church for their contributions to the war effort.” Simone Munson, Wisconsin Historical Society